UNRWA is currently experiencing work stoppages by its staff in the West Bank, and one protesting worker has now been hospitalized after several days of hunger strike. The dispute arises from a previous stoppage in July, with the workers protesting UNRWA management’s decision not to pay striking workers for the days that they were previously on strike.
According to a recent report in the Palestine Monitor:
However, despite the fact that the issue of paid strike days was tabled for future discussions, their pay was nevertheless revoked, in what the union characterises as unilateral. “We were surprised when our salaries came at the end of the month and UNRWA (had) deducted three days of salaries. They had taken the decision alone, without negotiating, without returning to the area staff union,” Yacoub Abu Khiran, a member of the area staff union and the Area Finance Officer for Hebron, explained to me while sitting under the strike-tent at the main entrance of Dheisheh Refugee Camp.
According to Abu Khiran, the union is most concerned about receiving payment for strike days because it will make striking more difficult in the future, “They say ‘no work, no pay’, which means strikes are forbidden.
“What UNRWA aims is to prevent any future strike. Which is actually legal, which is our last weapon. Because we cannot afford to deduct even one dinar from our salaries, it means that in the future, we can’t use this weapon.”
According to Abu Khiran, this is the first case that Barbara Shenstone, current director of the UNRWA in Palestine has refused to pay the workers after a strike has ended.
Negotiations over this issue began at the beginning of August, during which time the union offered a concession to work longer hours or on days off to earn back the missed days’ wages. The workers have lost three days of pay and three days of annual work leaves.
The Palestine Authority’s Ministry of Labor has supported the union in their demand for paid strike days. Abu Khiran stated, “The Ministry of Labor says our strike was legal, and there should be no deduction. From the point of view of the Ministry even our offers to make up time is illegal. Because strikes are legal and should be paid in full.”
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no expert in Palestine Authority labor law. However, not paying workers for days they missed due to work stoppages is the normal practice in most jurisdictions—after all, it hardly makes sense for the employer to pay union members to force the employer to make more generous contract offers. In the Palestinian case, my reading of Labor Law #7 (2000) is that while it does provide Palestinian workers with a right to strike, it doesn’t seem to provide them with a right to be paid for not working during a strike. It seems unlikely that UNRWA would ignore a lawful direction of the Palestinian Ministry of Labor, had it received such a thing. Finally, the PA itself has told its own employees in the past that they would not be paid for any days that they might spend on strike.
Compounding all of this, of course, is UNRWA’s own rather precarious financial situation.
If anyone knows the legal context better, feel free to email me, or post something in the comments below.
UPDATE: There is more reporting on the strike (as of 15 November) at The Media Line.